At the Abu Dhabi Ship Building (ADSB) yard in Musaffah, business has never been better. The largest building and repair yard for the region's navies has cut the first ribs of steel for its fifth Baynunah-class vessel, a 72-metre corvette on order by the UAE Navy.
On a recent morning, crews of welders, pipe fitters and fabricators were busy erecting the "pocket warships" under various stages of construction. The fast missile strike craft, as they are referred to in the industry, come with missile systems designed to defend against attacks from the air, land and water - even from threats under water. The Baynunah nearest launching in the Musaffah yard has its superstructure and hull finished, and some of the major equipment is being installed, says Bill Saltzer, the chief executive of ADSB.
Another sister ship being built in Cherbourg, France, through a subcontractor is 70 per cent complete, with weapons and sensors being installed. It will launch next summer and then undergo months of tests and trials, Mr Saltzer says. With a value of US$1 billion (Dh3.67bn), the Baynunah project is the largest and most important contract for ADSB to date. But the shipyard is also seeing brisk business with orders for other naval vessels from the UAE Armed Forces and other GCC states, and will soon cap its best year in the company's 12-year history.
The progress has Mr Saltzer calling it "far and away" the most significant year the company has seen. "We are very close to full capacity," he says, clearly pleased. Net profits for the first three quarters more than quadrupled to Dh91.3 million, compared with Dh19m the year before. ADSB, which is listed on the Abu Dhabi Securities Exchange, was founded by the Abu Dhabi Government and Newport News Shipbuilding, a major US boatbuilder.
The list of orders that the builder is turning into reality include several 16-metre Seakeeper fast landing craft for clients in Bahrain and the UAE royal family, a dozen 34-metre patrol boats, and refitting 10 patrol boats for the Bahrain navy. A composites shop is the latest addition to the shipyard, which recently topped 1,000 employees. But it is the Baynunah project that is the most significant for the company, and the country.
Baynunah is the latest big expenditure of the UAE Armed Forces, which is using money from a six-year oil boom to finance major upgrades in its defence systems. They include some of the most advanced F-16 jet fighters and an expected order for a layered missile defence system estimated to cost between US$9bn and US$16bn. Delivery of the first Baynunah to the UAE Navy is scheduled for the first half of 2010, with the second Baynunah to be delivered eight months later.
The remaining corvettes will be delivered in six-month intervals. The project could bring a flood of new orders, as ADSB is hoping other GCC states turn their attentions away from the major naval shipbuilders in Europe, the US and Asia and begin using its home-grown talents. The region's militaries are also beginning to outsource tasks such as equipment maintenance and managing the supply chain of parts and accessories, as a cost-cutting measure.
ADSB is hoping to follow the example of Al Taif, which is performing the maintenance of the UAE Army military vehicles, and create a niche for itself in managing naval fleets. In July, the company linked with BVT Surface Fleet, a UK boatbuilder that is building aircraft carriers for the British navy. The joint venture will tap into a potentially bigger market within the GCC than the business ADSB is now handling, Mr Saltzer says. "We are talking about spare parts, logistics, planning, maintenance, the supply chain - it's a big ball of wax."